Bernalillo County jail administrators, who cut off a controversial inmate methadone treatment program at the Metropolitan Detention Center earlier this month, have now agreed to extend a contract with the program’s provider, Recovery Services of New Mexico.
That means inmates already in treatment and new inmates booked into the facility will not face a rapid detox protocol, and painful withdrawal symptoms, during the holidays.
The decision was announced during a commission meeting on Tuesday night where several of the elected officials said they had not been informed about MDC Chief Ramon Rustin’s decision to halt the controversial program before it was publicly announced.
I’ll work with purchasing to see what we can do to continue the program with a contract until we get the research,” Rustin says.
Rustin admits he never expected the public outcry over his decision and the pushback he’s gotten.
After listening to former inmates, recovering drug addicts, family members and multiple health experts, Commissioner Maggie Hart-Stebbins directed jail administrators to collect independent third-party research. She says that’s the only way he can re-evaluate the program’s effectiveness behind bars.
Drug Policy Alliance State Director Emily Kaltenbach tells SFR she’s encouraged the program will continue and says research is already available that demonstrates methadone is accepted as the standard of care for drug addicts who voluntarily agree to treatment.
She says methadone is the best medicine for a very serious illness because it has proven to reduce violence in jail, overdoses, and is the most cost effective way to treat addicts.
“This is the right program for MDC, but let’s see what the research shows,” she says.
Cruel and Unusual?
Legal Action Center, a nonprofit national law and policy organization that performs anti-discrimination work on behalf of individuals with histories of addiction, sent a letter to commissioners before the meeting suggesting that ending the program could be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires government agencies and others to treat and evaluate individuals with disabilities objectively and fairly rather than on the basis of outmoded stereotypes and myths. The letter cited SFR’s original reporting and criticized Rustin’s justifications.
LAC also told commissioners that ending the program could be a violation of inmates’ constitutional rights. They cited the Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Former inmate Patricia Marez, who has been in recovery and clean for two years, tells SFR (in the video above) she already knows the program is effective. Marez insists it helped her while she was locked up. Marez doesn’t see any reason for administrators to force people already in methadone treatment to endure painful detox protocols.
“I’ve seen people willing to do anything to stop the pain,” Marez tells SFR. Including, she says, running into doors to knock themselves out. “It’s awful.”
Recovery Services of New Mexico Doctor Anjali Taneja, who is still brewing over having her jail access to inmates revoked last week, says she’s encouraged the inmate treatment program will continue. And, in light of New Mexico’s drug overdose death epidemic (27 deaths for every 100,000 people) Taneja says it’s time for Bernalillo County to think about holistic approaches to solving the crisis.
“There needs to be a more seamless re-entry program, including intensive counseling,” Taneja says. “That pathway does not exist right now.”
Listen to the complete interview with Taneja here.
Taneja hopes the independent review in Bernalillo County could lead other correctional facilities to consider starting similar programs for their inmates.
“New Mexico has been a model for programs that really work. We're a state that takes chances on things that are creative. This could definitely be the start of other jails around the state starting drug treatment programs like this,” Taneja says. "Families are in favor of treatment and of doing things that work in our state.”
Despite giving $5,000 from his discretionary funds for a Suboxone treatment regiment used at Casa de Salud, an Albuquerque South Valley health clinic, Commissioner Wayne Johnson doesn’t agree with Taneja or her colleagues, and thinks addicts—in the future—should be treated in the community.
For now, Johnson says he supports extending the program’s contract.
“In the long run, the county has an obligation to protect the public, MDC’s correctional officers and inmates, and also not to substitute one addiction for another,” Johnson says.
Commissioners plan to hear more testimony from medical experts and get an update on the independent evaluation at their next meeting in January.
Here's the LAC letter: